The European Union insisted Germany stop supplying American prisons with sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that had frequently been used in three-drug lethal injections. Penal authorities responded by brewing some unproven compounds, and last week relatives and attorneys of Dennis McGuire complained he experienced cruel and unusual punishment during execution since the new intravenous two-drug cocktail rendered him motionless for five minutes after which he suddenly snorted and then gasped and breathed irregularly more than ten minutes. The assistant attorney general of Ohio countered that though cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited by the Constitution, “You’re not entitled to pain-free execution.”
Before commenting on this case and the death penalty, I must proffer a lay solution to humanely – let’s make that painlessly – execute convicted murderers. Have you ever had an operation under general anesthesia? I’ve had three, and never remembered or felt anything while my knee was being drilled and two partially amputated fingers were carved and stitched. I’ve talked to survivors of brain surgery, heart surgery, stomach surgery, colon surgery, prostate surgery, testicular surgery, breast surgery, ovarian surgery, and many other procedures that would be unspeakably painful without absolute sedation. No one has ever told me about experiencing pain until wakening in hellish recovery rooms. The penal implication is clear: if executions must continue, then administer condemned prisoners the same drugs that anesthesiologists use when sending their patients into a world of painlessness and amnesia. When that destination is reached, simply introduce cyanide, the quick-killing drug carried by fanatics determined to die before capture or punishment. Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering could vouch for the efficacy of cyanide.
Regarding capital punishment, I confess I supported it, sometimes vociferously, as an adolescent, young man, and into early middle age but have since been both out-reasoned and outlasted by those who state not only do modernized democratic nations, with whom we have most in common, consider the death penalty a mean and anachronistic sentence but also one that fails to deter murderers since nations in gallows-free regions of Europe suffer far fewer murders than the United States. That doesn’t prove capital punishment provokes miscreants to murder or that not having the ultimate penalty persuades angry people to put down their swords. It does indicate we should dismantle this expensive and emotionally damaging artifice that is rarely used but oft debated in most parts of the country.
Now, regarding Dennis McGuire, a review is helpful. In 1989 he attacked Joy Stewart, a pregnant newlywed of twenty-two. McGuire first stabbed her above the collarbone but that wound was not mortal and probably didn’t quiet her, so he stabbed her in the neck, severing her carotid artery and jugular vein. He raped her in the vagina, and he raped her in the anus. Even most defense attorneys, a disingenuous lot, would be compelled to concede she suffered cruel and unusual punishment. That doesn’t mean Dennis McGuire should’ve also been intentionally subjected to pain. Pro death penalty or not, most of us are better than that. And I think most would agree that an executioner with the medicine kit of an anesthesiologist and the cyanide of Goering and Himmler can prevent snorting, gasping, and irregular breathing that so upset McGuire’s children as they watched him die.